Ipanema and Copacabana are great places for beach activities, and both neighbourhoods are quite safe and clean. But after 2 weeks of being in Rio, I found them a bit sterile and late at night they seemed a bit dead - except the Mayday concert that I saw. I asked around in the institute about neighbourhoods which have good music and nightlife, and was pointed towards Lapa.
It's not too far from Copacabana, about 30 minutes by public transport, so I headed out there on Friday night. I went after 10, aware that the nightlife in Rio doesn't start till around midnight, but wanted to get there a bit early to explore the area. I took the metro, and got off at the right stop but ended up taking the wrong exit. I walked around for about 20 minutes, and couldn't see any signs of activity. A few homeless people, some people hissing at me (drug dealers maybe?) and very rundown and shady bars. I have a horrible sense of direction (I often get lost in new places), so I knew I must have walked in the wrong direction. Decided to retrace my steps and after getting back to the metro station, walked in the other direction.
Within 10 minutes, I knew this was the right area. I could see a lot of small groups of friends walking, and some music throbbing from not too far away. Following the crowd in such situations is generally a good idea, and 10 minutes later I was next to the Arcos de Lapa. It was still early by Rio standards (almost 11 pm), and I got the feeling that the party was just starting.
What surprised me was the amount of stuff happening on the streets. The bars and clubs were getting full, but the streets had even more people, and a lot of stuff going on. Food stalls, alcohol vendors and small bands filled the streets, as did a large police presence. There were queues outside some of the clubs, but a lot of people were happy standing out on the streets and the sidewalks. And it wasn't just one or two streets, but pretty much the whole neighbourhood.
The alcohol and food were cheap, and one could even buy some cocktails from enterprising vendors who walked around carrying trays with a few bottles and created their concoctions quickly. After a couple of hours, the streets were as full as a crowded nighclub with different bands playing in different corners. It didn't feel too safe, and unlike Ipanema and Copacabana, the whole area was quite dirty and rundown but it was great fun. I stayed there till late, and getting back was easy because of the frequent nightbuses.
I went back to the same area the next afternoon to explore Santa Teresa. The favelas in Rio are spread out among the hills, but Santa Teresa is one of the few hilltop neighbourhoods which isn't a favela. It's a short walk up from the Lapa arches, and during the day Lapa has a completely different feel. Santa Teresa is known as the more bohemian part of Rio, with a few small art galleries, cafes and small music clubs. I spent most of the afternoon exploring Santa Teresa, and though it wasn't as funky as Olinda, it gave off the impression of being quite laidback. There weren't too many people, and along 2 or 3 streets there were a bunch of cafes with some musicians. It didn't have the intensity of Lapa the previous night, but I came across a few art galleries, a group of actors rehearsing a play, a couple practising some dance moves and some nice street art.
Lapa and Santa Teresa are definitely worth exploring more on the weekends. Here're a few pictures. I've uploaded more pictures here.